2011: A Very Good Year

This past year has been very good for antiplanners. In February, the Antiplanner had an op ed in National Review opposing high-speed rail that summarized years of research on the subject. The Antiplanner also argued that Florida was the linch pin of President Obama’s planned national high-speed rail system.

Just a week after the National Review op ed, Florida Governor Rick Scott decided to kill the state’s high-speed rail plan. While the timing was coincidental, the Tampa Bay Times, among others, credited Cato, Reason, and Heritage with persuading Governor Scott to kill the project. Of course, the real victor was the Florida Tea Party.

In May, Florida set another precedent when it repealed the state’s growth-management law. The Antiplanner has long argued that this law made housing unaffordable and resulted in Florida’s housing bubble.

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Christmas Present

The 2010 National Transit Database has been available for a few weeks. As usual, it comes in two formats: either some 34 data tables that are easy to read but difficult to manipulate in Excel or some 20 data files that are easy to manipulate in Excel but difficult to read.

The Antiplanner has summarized the database in a single Excel file that includes annual transit trips, passenger miles, vehicle revenue miles, fares, operating costs, capital costs (which the database calls “expanded service” capital costs), maintenance costs (which the database calls “existing service” capital costs), number of vehicles, total seats, total standing room, BTUs of energy consumption, and carbon dioxide emissions for each transit agency and mode of transit. The BTUs were calculated from the energy table using energy factors from the Energy Information Agency. Carbon dioxide outputs were calculated using state electrical generation data from the same source.

Rows 2 through 1392 include the data by transit agency and mode. Rows 1396 through 1412 are sums by transit mode. Rows 1416 through 1431 are sums by transit mode including only those modes for which energy data were published. Rows 1434 through 1798 are sums by urbanized area. Eventually, I’ll add more columns that include calculations of various factors, but with these raw data you can do the same on your own.

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Trains Falling Apart

Washington Metro trains are so poorly maintained that parts falling off of the railcars are damaging later trains, leading to the tunnels filling with smoke and the evacuation of several trains. This has some people reconsidering their transportation habits. “Today is my last day as a full time Orange Line commuter after almost 10 yrs,” tweets one rail rider. “Cheaper, easier & safer to drive.”

The railcar that dropped parts is among the newer cars owned by Washington Metro. Though more than a decade old, it should be able to stand up to another decade or so of service. But Metro is in dire financial straights and has been deferring maintenance since at least 2002, leading to a huge maintenance backlog and a significant increase in breakdowns and mechanical problems.

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Heroes or Heels?

Last week, the Atlantic web site published an article about the brave Tea Party activists who are challenging the evil urban planners who are interfering with property rights and attempting to socially engineer American cities. Except, the article’s writer, Anthony Flint, seemed to think that was a bad thing.

Some idea of Flint can be gained from his claim that the Heritage Foundation recent published “a grave warning against ‘radical environmentalists,’ driven by, yes, the UN’s Agenda 21.” In fact, as the Antiplanner reported last week, the article in question said exactly the opposite: that Agenda 21 has little or nothing to do with the smart-growth plans being written by urban planners across the country. Apparently, Flint would not pass a high school reading comprehension test.

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When the Facts Change, Some Minds Don’t

John Maynard Keynes is supposed to have said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” For many politicians including President Obama, the answer is, “I ignore the facts and stick to my preconceived notions.”

Back in 2008, California voters approved high-speed rail based on the promises that, at a cost of $43 billion, California would have trains by 2020 that would go from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two hours and forty minutes. Attracting 60 million riders a year, the trains would earn such great operational profits that private investors would provide $6.5 billion to $7.5 billion worth of capital funds.

Now the California High-Speed Rail Authority admits that cost will be more than double that amount, it will carry fewer passengers than expected, it won’t be done until 2030 at the earliest, and no private investors are interested in supporting a project based on phony premises. Moreover, the latest word is that the trains will take longer than two hours and forty minutes, which means they will be far less competitive with air travel than promised. So it is not surprising that most California voters want to reconsider the project.

But not the Obama administration. Even though Congress has not authorized or appropriated more than a tiny fraction of the funds needed to complete the California boondoggle, the Obama administration says it “is not going to flinch” on its support for the project. “The worst thing we could do is make obligations to folks and start to renege on our word.”

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Saving High Street

It’s not enough for planners to control where people live. Now they want to control where people shop. British planner Mary Portas has unveiled a 28-point plan for saving High Street (the Britishism for what Americans would call downtown). The most important part of the plan would prevent anyone from building a suburban shopping center without approval from the national government.

Instead of new suburban shops, Portas wants to require that everything from supermarkets to car boot sales (similar to what Americans would call flea markets) be located in town centres, er, centers.

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Highway Cost Overruns

Numerous state highway programs have suffered cost overruns, say the Gannett papers (which include USA Today). What’s striking from the story, however, is how small and rare the cost overruns really are.

The papers found overruns in 19 states, but they focused on projects that actually had overruns and did not reveal how many projects had no overruns. Of the overruns they found, many were less than 2 percent, most were less than 5 percent, and only three–in New Jersey, New York, and Ohio–were more than 10 percent. The unweighted average was around 7 percent. Since Gannett did not discuss any projects that had zero overruns, the real average must be much less.

This contrasts sharply with rail transit cost overruns, which have steadily averaged around 40 percent. Nearly 10 years ago, Bent Flyvbjerg reported that transit cost overruns in the United States averaged 41 percent while highway overruns averaged 8 percent. More recent research has found similar rail overruns, but the Gannett analysis suggests that highway overruns remain well under 10 percent.

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Central Planning Gone Wild

In 1957, Nikita Khrushchev bragged that the Soviet Union would overtake the United States in production of steel and other important products within 15 years. Not to be outdone, Mao Zedong immediately decided that China’s own steel industry would overtake Britain’s–then the world’s second-leading manufacturing country (14). Thus began the Great Leap Forward, one of the tragedies of modern history.

According to one estimate, the Great Leap Forward led to as many as 55 million “excess deaths” between 1958 through 1962 (334). That’s nearly as many as died as a result of World War II, which lasted longer and involved far more nations.

Historians have blamed most of the Chinese deaths on starvation. But Frank Dikötter, a Dutch historian who is equally fluent in English and Chinese, shows in his book, Mao’s Great Famine, that the real cause was central planning. Dikötter gathered his information from provincial archives, which had been made available to the public during a period of unusual openness that preceded the Beijing Olympics.

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